On the nearby island of Torcello, there is a stone throne which is said to have been used by Attila, King of the Huns, during his 5th-century invasion of Italy. Alas, it's a legend without foundation. Local fiction also plays a part in Verdi's opera Attila when Foresto and other refugees from Aquileia establish the city of Venice, raising it from the swamps. But Verdi knew the scene would appeal to the local audience when it premiered at La Fenice in 1846. This evening, Attila returned to its Venetian home, where it was given a performance bursting with energy.
A product of Verdi's “galley years”, Attila has a punchy, rabble-rousing score, nowhere more so than in the Prologue when the Roman general Ezio attempts to strike a bargain with the Hun, declaring “You may have the universe, but let Italy remain mine”. Venice had been under Austrian rule since 1815 and with the rise of the Risorgimento, which would lead to the revolutions of 1848, this was a pertinent message that the audience cheered wildly. The overthrow of a tyrannical invader was a popular subject. In the opera, it takes three protagonists to conspire against Attila: Ezio, Foresto (an Aquileian knight) and his beloved Odabella, extolling the patriotic spirit of Italian women by seeking revenge against her father's death at Attila's hand. Verdi's early operas are full of strong women and here it's Odabella who deals the deadly blow, stabbing Attila with the very sword he had presented her with in the prologue, aroused by her feisty spirit. A clumsy move.
Daniele Abbado's production, previously played in Bologna, is of the nondescript variety – not as bland as his deadly dull Nabucco for the Royal Opera, but with little to say. He sets the action in what seems like the industrial grime of the hull of a large ship, somewhere in the second half of the 20th century. The Huns are supposed to be from 'the East' – Abbado references refugees from Syria and Afghanistan in his programme note – while the Romans, questionably, “could be UN troops”. Giant sails rise and fall on occasion, and a huge bell descends for the vital scene where Attila, haunted by a dream, is turned away from the Gates of Rome by Pope Leo I, who denounces him as “the scourge of God”. Abbado's direction of the chorus was particularly uninspired, but at least his staging didn't get in the way of the singing, much of which was terrific.
Roberto Tagliavini sang Attila with a rock solid bass and imposing presence, fully deserving to follow the line of great basses who performed the role here at La Fenice which include Boris Christoff and Samuel Ramey. Tagliavini displayed plenty of flexibility, his cabaletta “Oltre a quel limite” fabulously done, making you want to cheer for the Hun. Squaring up to him, Julian Kim, sporting a beret, sang Ezio with a strong, ringing top, even if his baritone isn't the largest instrument (not a problem in the 1100 seater Fenice).
Another Korean, Vittoria Yeo, attacked the treacherous role of Odabella with tremendous spirit. She may be slight of figure, but has a fearless approach – real blade to her soprano, good bottom notes and an incisive top. She sometimes took the coloratura a bit gingerly, but the notes were always there. She has splendid diction too, especially her extravagantly rolled 'r's. Occasionally, Yeo ran out of steam at the ends of phrases and she tired a little in the final act, but this is a voice I'd be keen to hear again. Romanian tenor Stefan Pop sounded constrained at the top of his register as Foresto, seeking an heroic trumpet tone as if auditioning for Otello. He suffered some variable intonation, but certainly sang with commitment.
Riccardo Frizza led a zinging account of the score, strings juicily rich, driving Verdi's rum-ti-tum rhythms at full throttle to match his cast. Once or twice he arguably drove them too hard – the stretta finale of Act II was done at a tremendous pace which then got even faster as Frizza hit the accelerator – but it made for an exhilarating performance. Verdi without speed limits.
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